server. (Ironically, the company that benefited most from AOL's
Usenet debut was probably its nearest competitor, CompuServe, then nearly
double AOL's size, which observed the situation and determined to construct a
gateway that would cause less trouble. CompuServe has never suffered from
anything like the same image problem on the Net, although it, too, is resented as
too expensive. However, in early 1997 WebTV users were joining AOLers in the
Whatever the Net thinks about it, within its own modem ports AOL has been a
roaring success. Between 1994 and 1997 AOL's claimed user base grew from 1
million to 8 million; the company launched a public stock offering; and it became
the number one domestic U.S. service, estimating its daily contribution to Usenet at
300,000 postings. Plastering the world with free disks and free trial accounts helped
create for AOL a throwaway accounts culture whose flame-and-run tactics were in
general more destructive to the Net in encouraging spamming and other types of
abuse than the far more controversial anonymous remailers that allow users to
interact on the Net over a long period of time without revealing their real-world
identity. But the strategy netted AOL a ton of subscribers (and supplied a
generation of computer users with free backup disks).
It only added to the Net's contempt that there were several significant Internet
services that AOL didn't offer, notably outbound Telnet, the function that allows you
to log on to remote computers as if you were directly connected to them. The buzz
may be all about the Web, but Telnet is a vital service and one the other major
providers were supplying by 1995. More than that, it seemed that no matter what
you did on AOL you ended up twiddling your thumbs while AOL downloaded
"artwork"--all those colored graphics that give the service a large part of its
character. And on top of that, the ability that old Netheads take for granted to
multitask--like being able to download a file in the background while browsing the
Web in one bit of foreground and hanging out on multiple channels on Internet
Relay Chat in another--just couldn't be had. AOL, like all dial-up services of the era
before the widespread use of Internet standards, only let you do one thing at a time.
AOL did have the capability of running Internet sessions like those offered by flat-rate ISPs for those with the knowledge to seek out their own software, but it was an
expensive--and, people complained, slow--way to get your Internet service.
AOL's chat rooms were another sore point. Chat is one of those
functions that most systems offer to let groups of users type messages to each
other in real time, emulating a live meeting or conference. Internet Relay Chat
(IRC) is far more flexible than AOL's setup, which limits users to one chat room at a
time, with a maximum of twenty-three users. That relatively small objection was
easily trumped by the activities of AOL's Guides, volunteers detailed to keep the
AOL Guides act as monitors. If someone starts abusing other people in a public
chat room, using sexually explicit words, or trying to trade illegally copied
commercial software, any of the users can complain to a Guide, who will join the
conversation and monitor the situation, warning the miscreant if it seems
appropriate. If unacceptable behavior persists, the Guide can eject the person from
the chat room and even the service--alt.aol-sucks posters call this getting
"TOSsed," a word derived from "Terms of Service." AOL has also faced complaints
about censorship from other users, such as the Creative Coalition, a group formed
to protest the disappearance of members' poetry from the AOL message boards.
If you think of AOL as a privately owned commercial service aimed at the family
market, these policies make some sense even if they fail. And they have failed on a
few occasions: some of the most frightening stories about the Internet and
pornography or contacts between children and pedophiles did not happen on the
Internet but within the supposedly safe confines of AOL. Their being reported as
Internet stories is yet another source of resentment on the Net at large.
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